Saturday, December 14, 2013

Surrounded by the Rot and Ruin

Rot & Ruin
~Rot & Ruin~
Benny Imura
Book 1
By Jonathan Mayberry

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Benny Imura couldn't hold a job, so he took to killing.

In the zombie-infested world Benny has grown up in, teenagers must work once they turn fifteen—or they'll lose their food rations. Benny isn't interested in taking on the family business, but he reluctantly agrees to train as a zombie killer with his boring brother, Tom. He expects a dull job, whacking zoms for cash. What he discovers is a vocation that will teach him what it really means to be human.

As his worldview is challenged again and again by the lessons he learns from Tom, Benny is forced to confront another horrifying reality: Sometimes the most terrible monsters are human.

These days it seems like you even mention the word "zombies" and people shudder. Not because they're creeped out, but because we've become overloaded. It's like we've been living with them so long, instead of being repulsed or scared by them, we just sigh and move along. So, it would take something pretty significant to break out of the sameness, right? Rot & Ruin might just be that book.

Okay, the book does share a lot with The Walking Dead*: everyone who dies comes back a zombie; zombies are fairly slow, and uncoordinated; and no one knows how the zombie plague originated. Also, it takes place long enough after the outbreak (about fourteen years) for electricity to be defunct, and everyone has stopped freaking out about the zombies, hunkered down, and built new self-sustaining settlements. And the last similarity: some humans are more dangerous than the zombies.

This isn't a story about solving or beating the plague, it's about living life after the disaster. It's about learning the way of the world, learning how to survive, and finally, finding your place in that world. But this isn't about adults learning to adapt, it's about kids growing up in it. Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age story of a young boy living after the zombie apocalypse.

Benny Imura is that boy. His first memory was of First Night, of his older brother holding him as he abandoned his mother to his recently-turned father. He's lived his entire life knowing his brother was a coward, even as Tom now makes his living as a zombie killer. But now that Benny's fifteen, and with no other jobs available, he's forced to learn "the family business" under Tom.

Benny struck me as a believable kid. He's hardened because of the world he lives in, but he still acts like a kid—collecting trading cards, brushing off authority, sassing his brother. He's got a chip on his shoulder when it comes to his brother, but he won't run off stupidly just because he's angry. However, sometimes I got the feeling he was a little too insightful about things. Sometimes he'd say exactly the right thing to a person to get them to open up, or he'd know exactly what to do with a girl. That's not to say he didn't make any mistakes, but I did find his actions a bit too perfect at times.

The rest of the cast was equally realistic. You can't really write a zombie apocalypse novel and have a bunch of stupid characters running around. The setting has to factor in just as much as their backgrounds and personalities do, and Mayberry delivered that perfectly. I especially appreciated that when it came to the female characters. There may only have been three or four of them, but none of them were ever pathetic damsels in distress, crying in the corner, waiting to be rescued. Even if you never saw them fight, there was never a moment you didn't believe they were survivors.

Like I said before, the story reminded me a lot of The Walking Dead premise. Not only in setting, but in style and tone, too. This is a gritty, hopeless landscape. There's no economy, no politics, just survival. And it's not like people can move on and forget about the past because it's there every day, shuffling around just outside the fence. So there's this split, this detachment of the townsfolk from the zombie-infested wilderness (the great Rot and Ruin), as well as a detachment of people from each other.

As a general rule in writing (I've found) you don't use 1st-person perspective if you're going to kill off the main character(s). It takes a lot of effort to write that character so that the reader will completely connect with and believe she's with him. Writing a 1st-person death scene is practically impossible to connect with—the reader knows she isn't dying, and thus loses that essential connection with the narrator. (Also, apparently people get really ticked off when you trick them into caring so much.)

Thus, by writing Rot & Ruin in 3rd-person-limited perspective, it allows that connection with the character but also leaves you slightly detached. And that detachment makes you on edge, more than if you were experiencing things through the character's eyes. The author makes no promise that everything will be okay, that the characters you're following won't meet a gruesome fate, because there are always more characters to switch to...

Probably the biggest connection for me between this and The Walking Dead was the theme of humans being scarier than zombies. Zombies are predictable, you know how to avoid them, how to protect against them. But other humans, people who embraced the lawlessness of the apocalypse, they're who you have to look out for. And there are some nasty characters in both series. People who you are ashamed to call human.

But where Rot & Ruin differs is in its depiction of the good guys. Yes, a majority of people just want to survive and keep the zombies out of sight, out of mind. But some still see zombies as people. I don't want to reveal too much, but the questions posed about humanity were a welcome change to the majority of zombie stories out there.

Overall, I enjoyed Rot & Ruin. If you're not already completely burned out on zombies, I'd recommend it for zombie fans who also like YA coming-of-age stories. Though no language or sex to speak of, there were mildly graphic gore references (it's a zombie book) as well as off-screen torture and a couple allusions to grown men kidnapping little girls, which gave me a rapey vibe (though not explicitly mentioned). Based on that, I'd suggest high school and older, though some middle-grade might enjoy as well. So if you've got a zombie enthusiast, or a younger person pouting that you won't let them watch/read The Walking Dead, I think Rot & Ruin is a great alternative or addition in the large realm of all things zombie.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 hours

*I've not read The Walking Dead graphic novels, nor watched the show. But I have watched the TellTale video game, and seen/read reviews of the series, which is what I'm basing my comparison(s) off of.

Audiobook Review
Performed by Brian Hutchinson
Length: 13.2 Hours
Listened at 2.6x Speed

Mr. Hutchinson provided a good performance, crisp and clear, but I didn't get much emotion from him. Don't know if that was due to the material, or possibly at request of production staff. Also there wasn't much distinction between the main voices; Tom sounded exactly like regular narration, while Benny and the other teens were slightly higher-pitched. More variety was given to the bounty hunters and other cast, and there were enough narrative cues to figure out who was speaking, so it still worked alright.

Overall, nothing noticeably special or horrible about this recording. A well-done, middle of the road production as far as I could tell. Possibly a little slower than usual, as I was able to listen at well over double-speed, but not noticeably dragging nor did it have huge pauses. If you're already an audiobook listener, you'll probably enjoy this recording, but it's nothing to write home about.

Disclaimer: I read an e-copy of this book for free via Simon & Schuster Inc./SimonTeen's 31 Days of Reading promotion on their website, In addition, I checked out a copy of the audiobook at my local library. I received nothing in exchange for this review.